Last month I was walking through a department store and happened to pass a sitting area that had a television tuned to a news channel. Unfortunately, I walked by just as the announcer was recounting something that happened to a four-year-old girl, something so horrific that it made me feel ill (it’s the same story I referenced in this post). The little girl lived, but what she went through was truly hell on earth. I continued to think of her hours, days, even weeks after I heard her story. I still think of her every now and then and wonder how she’s doing.
Meanwhile, a couple days after I heard this story, someone was really rude to me. The details of how I know this person and what happened don’t matter; suffice it to say that my perception was that her actions were not only extremely rude but undeserved, uncharitable, unreasonable, unkind, and just completely out of line. I responded with hostility in the form of defensive sarcasm, and then proceeded to share some uncharitable and unkind opinions of my own about this woman with my husband, mother, mother-in-law and pretty much anyone else who would listen. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought that maybe I should be turning the other cheek since I now claim to be a Christian, but that was overshadowed by an indignant feeling that if put into words went something like, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way I’m responding — after all, she was SO MEAN and SO UNFAIR. If I’m being nasty here it’s ultimately her fault.”
A while later, around the time I was walking around composing the “fantasy passive-aggressive email that I would just LOVE to send to this woman” in my head, the little girl from the news came to mind. Completely out of the blue, it occurred to me that one day that little toddler who’d lived through such unthinkable events will grow up. She’ll be an adult. Maybe I’ll even run into her at the grocery store. I thought of how I would treat her, how I would be sure to show her the utmost kindness to try to add some amount of love to her life, even if it were just in the form of a passing smile. No matter what the premise was for our interaction — even if she cut me off in traffic or stole my parking spot, even if she were to do something “SO MEAN” or “SO UNFAIR” — I would respond with charity and forgiveness. I would turn the other cheek.
It was interesting to realize that, just as I was in the midst of very much not turning the other cheek in my current situation. Yet when I thought about some hypothetical future interaction with the little girl from the news, it brought into relief the fact that there would just never be a good reason to be nasty or hostile to her. The severity of the events she’d been through startled me into realizing that any unkind thing I did or said to her, even if it were a reaction to something she’d done first, would just be lashing out because of wounded pride. Not only would it not solve anything, but it would add to the suffering she’d already experienced in her life.
That brought me to my current situation: had the woman who was recently rude to me not suffered? Surely she hadn’t been through anything as terrible as the little girl on the news; yet I bet if I were to see a highlight reel of the bad events in her life I would have overwhelming empathy for her too. I bet I wouldn’t want to add to the suffering she’d already experienced, no matter what. I bet I’d be willing to turn the other cheek.
I thought of all the other times I’d reacted to unkindness with more unkindness. The combative nurse at my doctor’s office, the unhelpful customer service rep at my insurance company, the condescending mom at the playgroup — I’d been uncharitable and unkind in my reactions to all of these people…yet for all I know they were some of the children whose terrible stories I saw on the news 15 years ago. Maybe I heard of the events in their lives and shook my head in sorrow, wishing that I could do even just one small thing to make their lives better.
Thinking about all this made me realize that I had always mentally compartmentalized people into two different groups: the people who live through horrible tragedy who I hear about on the news, and the people who I interact with in my daily life. The people on the news had almost theoretical status: they were people who I will never actually meet but, if I hypothetically were to meet them, I’d be extra motivated to be as perfectly Christ-like as possible, no matter what, so that I didn’t add to the suffering they’d seen in their lives. However, the thinking went, I don’t actually know anyone like that.
But of course I do. I might not know many people who have experienced events as extreme as that of the little girl on the news, but everyone has suffered. We all live in this fallen world together, and because of that we have all experienced hurt, loss, cruelty, abuse and pain, to some extent or another. Everyone I’ll ever interact with has had something bad happen to them. And when inevitable misunderstandings and altercations arise, if I respond to unkindness with unkindness, to scorn with scorn, the only result is that I am adding to the suffering they experience in this life, and to the total amount of suffering in the world.
Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that I will respond like Christ to all interactions from here on out. I do hope I’m able to keep this lesson in mind, though. I hope that next time I come across some tale of tragedy on the news, when I think, “My God, these sorts of things are so terrible, if only there were something I could do!”, I hope I remember that there is some small thing I can do: though I won’t ever be able to completely erase all the suffering from the world, I can start by not adding to it.
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